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Back cycling on the roads and trails of the U.S., and dealing with reverse culture shock, after 13 years in Myanmar and Cambodia

Posts Tagged ‘King Tabinshwehti

Adventures in Taungoo and beyond

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Bronze statue of King Min Gyi Nyo in Taungoo

Until a couple of years ago, visitors to Myanmar could have easily driven straight through Taungoo without realizing the important role the town once played in the nation’s history.

This changed in 2010, when festivities were held marking the 500th anniversary of Taungoo’s founding as the capital of a powerful Burmese kingdom. The celebration included the installation of a 6-meter-high bronze statue of Min Gyi Nyo, who established the Taungoo (Kaytumadi) dynasty on October 16, 1510, on the full moon of the lunar month of Tazaungmone.

The statue’s location along the main road through town makes it hard to miss, even for those who might have planned to speed through Taungoo without stopping. Adjacent to the statue is a revitalized section of the ancient city’s eastern gate and wide moat, and together these monuments invite passersby to stop and learn about an important chapter in Myanmar’s history.

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King Bayintnaung tests the bravery of one of his soldiers by driving a nail into this thumb.

King Min Gyi Nyo established Taungoo – located 220 kilometers north of Yangon in Bago Region – as a new capital after he broke away from the Ava (Inwa) kingdom near Mandalay. He ruled for 45 years, but it was his successor, King Tabinshwehti, who started expanding the kingdom and who worked to reunify central Myanmar for the first time since the fall of Bagan in 1287.

King Tabinshwehti’s influence reached into the Shan States to the northeast, as well as south to Bago. This Second Burmese Empire, as it came to be known, was further strengthened by the third Taungoo king, Bayintnaung, following the assassination of Tabinshwehti in 1551.King Bayintnaung proved himself to be an astute military commander, and under his leadership Taungoo became one of the most powerful kingdoms in the history of Southeast Asia, eventually extending from Shwebo in the north to Dawei in the south, and from Ava in the west to Chiang Mai in the east. Tributes were paid by smaller powers far beyond these borders.

King Bayintnaung died in 1581, and by 1599 the borders of the Taungoo kingdom had been pushed back until the empire was a fraction of its former size. The dynasty managed to survive on this much smaller scale for another 150 years until the death of King Mahadammayaza in 1752.

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Near the confluence of the Khabaung and Sittaung rivers

The palace at Taungoo is said to have once covered an area of about 8000 square meters, but aside from the gate and moat areas renovated for the 500th anniversary, few other remnants of the dynastic era have survived. In some places the ancient moat can be seen as a wide, dry ditch, while the wall on the west side looks like little more than a high levee covered with grass, flowers and small trees.

But Taungoo boasts a number of other sights that make the town worth visiting. It can easily be reached from Yangon or Mandalay by bus, train or car (driving from Yangon takes about four hours on the Yangon-Nay Pyi Taw Highway). There is also an airport just north of Taungoo, but it is reserved for military use. The airstrip holds historical significance: Built in 1940 by the British Royal Air Force, it served as the training and support base for the 1st American Volunteer Group, better known as the legendary Flying Tigers, from August 1941 to February 1942.

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Royal Lake

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Statue of King Bayintnaung at Kawmudaw Pagoda

Taungoo is located in the wide Sittaung River Valley, with the Bago Yoma mountain range to the west and the Kayin Hills to the east. These mountains are the source of the teak and other hardwoods upon which the local forestry products industry is based. The valley is named after the Sittaung River, which originates on the Shan plateau and flows south for 420 kilometers to empty into the Gulf of Martaban east of Bago. Along the way it skirts the eastern edge of Taungoo.

One way to get a close-up look at the waterway is to take a short hike to the confluence of the Khabaung and Sittaung rivers just south of town. Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse can provide directions to the start of the walk, and it’s best to go with someone who speaks Burmese language because there are some tricky twists and turns on the way. Or, foreigners who go on their own can stop locals and ask, “Myitsone beh hma leh?” (where is the confluence?)or “Myitsone thwa jin deh” (I would like to go to the confluence). The 30-minute walk to the meeting point of the muddy rivers passes through a Kayin neighborhood with traditional homes, open agricultural fields and shady groves of trees.

One of the biggest draws in Taungoo is picturesque Royal Lake, which is surrounded by well-landscaped grounds that include an amusement park for kids, an open-air restaurant and Royal Kaytumadi Hotel. The hotel provides great views across the lake to Shwesandaw Pagoda, built in 1597 and the tallest stupa in Taungoo.Nearby is Myasigon Pagoda, famous for its huge bronze Buddha image. The statue sits in a room decorated with glass mosaic tiles, which is located in a square building beneath a golden stupa. On the western edge of town, beyond the limits of the ancient wall and moat, lies Kawmudaw Pagoda where King Bayintnaung went to pray before each of his 15 victories in battle.

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Myat Saw Nyi Naung Pagoda

Myat Saw Nyi Naung Pagoda, located about 20 minutes east of Taungoo across the Sittaung River, has a unique design featuring long, covered walkways connecting various pagodas and shrines containing Buddha images. The area around the pagoda is characterized by forestland and paddy fields, and so walking between the shrines is like taking a peaceful amble through the countryside. The pagoda hosts the biggest annual festival in the Taungoo area, which is held around the full moon of the lunar month of Tabaung (March).

Taungoo’s location in the Sittaung River Valley makes it a great departure point for excursions into the mountains in either direction. An old British hill station called Thandaung Gyi sits 44 kilometers east of Taungoo at nearly1300 meters above sea level. The town, located in Kayin State, has only been open to foreign tourists since early 2013 and therefore lacks the infrastructure of more popular destinations such as Bagan and Inle. However, the area offers unparalleled natural beauty, as well as the chance to step off the beaten track and explore a town that is home to ethnic Kayin people and families of Nepalese descent.

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Shwe Thandaung Resort

Thandaung Gyi is best reached by hiring a private vehicle, as public transport is irregular.There are also two security checkpoints, so foreigners are urged to bring multiple photocopies of their passports and visas to minimize delays. It has not been clearly established whether foreigners are permitted to spend the night in the town: Some visitors have been allowed to stay, while others have been sent back to Taungoo by local authorities at sundown. In any case, accommodation is limited to very basic guesthouses – bathrooms are shared and sleeping is done on the floor with thin blankets – run by the Zion Hill Baptist Church and the local Anglican Church.

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Naw Bu Baw’s Mountain, Thandaung Gyi, in the morning mist

The road to Thandaung Gyi first passes through the town of Thandaung Lay, 21 kilometers east of Taungoo. This is the location of Shwe Thandaung Resort, where visitors can spend the night in rustic cabins nestled in the forest along the banks of Pathi Creek. The resort’s 100 acres of land double as a betel nut plantation with 20,000 trees. After Thandaung Lay, the road starts to climb steeply up into the forested mountains, and it continues to rise all the way to Thandaung Gyi, 23 kilometers east of the resort.

Thandaung Gyi is a small town with cool, wet weather. It is famous for its tea and coffee plantations, and there is still an old tea processing factory in town dating back to the colonial period that now prepares dry tea for soldiers in the Myanmar army.  

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The Bago Yoma west of Taungoo

The most spectacular site in Thandaung Gyi is 1462-meter-high Naw Bu Baw’s Mountain, named after a legendary princess who was accused of witchcraft and imprisoned in a cave on the peak. The mountaintop is now home to a huge cross installed in 1995 by the Christian Kayin community, and the stairway leading up to the peak is lined with small prayer chapels for use by pilgrims. From the top, visitors can enjoy awe-inspiring 360-degree views of green mountains all the way to the horizon.

Those seeking further adventures can head west of Taungoo into the wild Bago Yoma mountain range to see Asian elephants working in the timber industry. Such trips require permits and a knowledgeable guide, and can be organized in Taungoo through Dr Chan Aye at Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse or Bae Oo at Mother’s House Hotel. Single or multi-day excursions can be arranged, and include visits to traditional Kayin villages and to camps where the working elephants are fed and washed. It’s a rare opportunity to take a walk on the wild side of Myanmar.

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A working elephant in the Bago Yoma